Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Year Without Michael Gravois: It's Ostrander week and time to ask the burning question, "Who got robbed?"

Posted By on Thu, Aug 25, 2011 at 11:03 AM

  • Him

OMG, did you hear? Michael Gravois wasn't nominated for anything this year! This Ostrander game is rigged, man!

Okay, let's be honest. We may love sports, but hating the ref is really the national pastime, isn't it? Can

Michael Gravois in a sensible dress
  • Michael Gravois in a sensible dress
Memphis's theater judges ever make everybody happy? Oh, hell no. So give me a second to recover from the news that the Michael Gravois, an actor so versatile he could play a check and be accepted by establishments that only take cash, was completely snubbed, and then let's get our collective whine on. Here's my short list of actors (such as Michael Gravois), designers, (also like Michael Gravois) and shows (some starring Michael Gravois) that got effin' robbed.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Let's start with the big one and get all the haters out to tell me why I'm wrong. Michael Ching's operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's fairy story was an ambitious, risky collaboration between Playhouse on the Square and Opera Memphis and it's all but MIA at the Ostranders. The music direction nod feels like a halfhearted gesture acknowledging that original opera isn't easy and an all vocal beatbox-driven go at a classic is just this side of vainglorious. Wigs and makeup? Give me a break. This show proved, if nothing else, that Memphis's theater artists are contenders, able to create original product on par with the imports and endless revivals that fill our seasons.

What it's got going against it:

1. It's an opera, duh. Oh, and it's a collaborative effort. (Mudbloodedness shouldn't be a reason but I've honestly heard that complaint.)

2. It was the suckiest thing that ever sucked. This wasn't my experience, but I believe people when they say they saw a horrible show. In my early reviews I described the event as having a kind of NASCAR appeal: The inevitability of a crash makes each lap around the track that much more dangerous and thrilling. But I can only imagine that there were some horrible bloody pileups along the way. Even the best shows have bad days and this Midsummer's biggest weakness is that it's unforgiving. If the bad thing happened often enough, maybe this should-be landmark got exactly what it deserved.

3. Bald prejudice. Did I mention it's an opera? And that it was created inside the 240-loop? Like, in the last decade? That means a lot of hardcore opera fans who like to see elephants on stage and hate anything that's not old and in another language aren't going to give it a chance. And a lot of hardcore opera haters who do like a good musical aren't going to like Playhouse's arthouse turn. That's a lot of people who are only going to hear painful caterwauling even on the good nights.

How was it robbed: How about I start with an award it doesn't deserve: Best musical. Not gonna argue that with anybody. It was was clearly an inconsistent show and the rude mechanicals, arguably the shows true heart, weren't handled all that well. So let's rule the biggie out. But it what about Laura Stracko's fierce little Hermia? Kyle Huey's puckish Robin Goodfellow? What about some acknowledgement of Paul Koziel's epic beatboxing? What about John Horan's delicious candy-colored lighting, in terms of sheer beauty, some of the best I've seen locally.

Aliza Moran: Theatre Memphis's Amadeus was good, not great, but Moran gave one of the finest performances of the season as Mozart's wife. In the early acts she floats, then gravity takes its toll as she tumbles into desperate, bitter, crippling poverty.

How she was robbed: So, is Constanze the leading female role or the supporting female role? Yeah, I don't know the answer to that either. For my money she would be a contender in either category.

The cast and crew of Death of a Salesman: I can only guess that New Moon Theatre Company's show was never up for consideration? It was easily among the year's top five plays and it's got nothing to show for it.

How it was robbed: Janie Paris's graveside performance as the widow Loman was spectacular, acted with the kind of honesty that's almost embarrassing to watch. Ron Gephart, this year's Eugart Yerian honoree, was also at his best as Arthur Miller's titular salesman. Entertainment writer Jon Sparks' came off the bench strong. His go at Loman's neighbor Charlie and Wesley Barns's strong take on Loman's young boss were both worthy of a "featured" nomination, at least. But above all else, this was a fantastic ensemble doing great work with limited resources.

A dashing Michael Gravois
  • A dashing Michael Gravois

Romeo & Juliet: My three favorite show's of the season in descending order are...

1. (A tie) August: Osage County (Playhouse on the Square), and
Stuff Happens (U of M)
3: Romeo & Juliet (Tennessee Shakespeare Company).

Of course TSC is still new and not eligible.

How they were robbed: "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action": That's Shakespeare speaking through Hamlet to every player on every stage from now until the end of time. Whether you like high concept Bard or straight up traditional, it's best when it's simple: Clutter kills. TSC's R&J was a lighthearted romp through a teenage nightmare in full Elizabethan drag; the sort of show that slaps you in the face, pokes you in the eyes, says, "nyuk, nyuk, nyuk," then tears your heart out and reminds you why we're supposed to care about this Shakespeare stuff. And the players did all that with good words, lots of love, more sweat, and nature's infinite beauty. This was the season's best, tightest ensemble, and a real contender for best in show.

Cabaret: This show was awful, sure, but the set, all black and blood red, was excellent and the expressionist lighting set the perfect tone. And what about Barry Fuller and Jeanna Juleson? Amid the rubble they found something worthwhile.

Why it was robbed: When a show gets shut out like Cabaret was shut out there's only one explanation: Cooties.

Cassie Thompson: Little Shop's Audrey is the Stanley Kowalski of musical theater. A weird paring, I know but both roles were so perfectly stamped by their creators that every actor following ultimately has to wrestle with the ghosts of Marlon Brando and Ellen Green, who isn't even dead. Thompson's achingly sweet, hurt-your-heart funny run through "Somewhere That's Green" acknowledged her bubbleheaded antecedent, but every masochistic moment was her own.

How she was robbed: She was also in Cabaret and Cabaret has cooties.

Barclay Roberts and Ann Sharp Great featured work in A Delicate Balance. Either performer could have been picked in the supporting or featured categories.

How they were robbed: Weird, difficult parts like this are always wallflowers at the prom.

Tartuffe: Hattiloo's smartly adapted take on Moliere was made with Memphis in mind. It felt less like a 17th-century French farce than a lost Douglas Turner Ward comedy. It was a ragged but right on production that made an effective ensemble from a mixed bag of talent. Goose egg at the Ossies.

How it was robbed: Jonathan Underwood took Tartuffe in unexpected directions and brought down the house. He, at least, should have made the short list.

Comedy of Errors: The chemistry was all wrong but the character work in Stephen Hancock's sincerely self-aware COE brought Shakespeare in line with Preston Sturges.

How it was robbed: Rhodes' take on Twelfth Night was tighter and leaner making the competition look like an opulent mess by way of comparison. But in an offbeat show the two Dromios had perfect timing. Jonathan Castro (Dromio of Syracuse) and William Henry (Dromio of Ephesus): Robbed!

Michael Gravois in a patriotic party dress
  • Michael Gravois in a patriotic party dress

* Brief autobiographical pause explaining why there are so many community actors nominated in the college division :

It has been noticed. There are A LOT more community actors nominated in the college and university division this season than usual. I am one of them. It's really not that weird.

Rhodes College celebrated the McCoy Theatre's 30th Anniversary this year and the 25th anniversary of Nicholas Nickelby, a landmark production that truly blurred the lines between college and community theater. I'm an alum, class of 1989 and my band played the huge reunion party on the opening night of The Robber Bridegroom, a show the McCoy originally produced in the fall of '88. I was also in that original cast, and thought it would be fun to team up with other Memphis-based alumni, current students, and a handful of community actors for the revival. If community recognition seems out-of-control in the college Ostranders this season, it's not indicative of a trend to shut out students. It's because Rhodes' celebratory season was built around reunions, guest artists, and community involvement. Rhodes' closing show, Twelfth Night, was more heavily populated by students, but the anniversary was ongoing, so faculty and community actors took on some key roles there too. Now, back to Who Got Robbed...

Chase Ring and the other students in the chorus of The Robber Bridegroom: Chase, dude, you were great in all those small totally unmemorable parts you played last fall. If I hadn't been there hogging up the same part community actor Billy Pullen played way back in 1988 you would have been an awesome singing severed head.

How they were Robbed: Celebrations are what they are but—play prizes aside— many students were deprived of choice acting opportunities by a bunch of graduated glory hogs. Hopefully the returning alum and community pros were at least able to share something useful along the way. Flip or not, I've got to confess: When I saw all the nominations for Michael Towle, Jen Henry, Mary Buchignani, Nicole Hale, Scott Ferguson and other fantastic grownups and talented townies it really did feel like cheating.

And lastly...

Michael Gravois: He was showy in the showy 39-Steps (total shut out) and he was frumpy in the showy The Drowsy Chaperone (Playhouse on the Square version). And yet, in spite of these showy-frumpy achievements his name is not among the chosen. Today, we are all Gravois. Today, we cry on the inside, letting our hand speak silently to the babbling face of human ignorance.

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